Longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro is remembered as a hero in much of Africa, and he played an important role fighting colonialism, but his vision for the continent never included how its countries would pay for freedom.
Few outsiders played a more important role fighting apartheid in Africa than Castro, according to Daniel K. Kalinaki, managing editor for Africa at Nation Media Group in a Daily Nation report.
Castro took power in Cuba in 1959 after the armed revolution by his 26th of July Movement ended the authoritarian regime of President Fulgencio Batista. After Castro embraced communism, Cuba entered the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S.
From the beginning of the Cuban revolution, its leaders were keen to spread their message to other parts of Latin America and Africa, Daily Nation reported.
It wasn’t just about independence from colonialists but also from the perceived injustices of capitalism. “I find capitalism repugnant. It is filthy, it is gross, it is alienating,” Castro said as he aligned with the Soviet Union.
Castro fought battles in Africa countries struggling for independence.
His first foray into Africa was in Algeria, giving medical support to the Algerian National Liberation Front in its successful war of independence against France.
In Zaire, revolutionary poster child Che Guevara and a dozen commandos tried unsuccessfully to inspire and lead a grassroots campaign against Mobutu Sese Seko.
Cubans saw military action in Ethiopia and Angola. Cuban intervention had consequences for Somalia, South Africa and Namibia. Some of those battles made enemies in Africa for Castro.
Cubans in Miami who escaped Castro’s controlling rule celebrated his death this weekend in Miami. Few tears will be shed over his death in Somalia, where his military involvement left a mark, Voice of America reported.
After dabbling in Bolivia, Vietnam and the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, Cuba sent at least 15,000 troops to Ethiopia and helped the Derg regime beat off an invasion of Somali troops in Ogaden in 1978.
It ended badly for Somalia, which still has not recovered, VOA reported.
In early 1977, Castro brought together the leaders of Somalia, Ethiopia and southern Yemen to create a socialist alliance. Gen. Mohamed Nur Galal was the former deputy defense minister of Somalia and the focal point of Somalia’s military contacts with Cuba at that time, VOA reported.
Castro said the alliance would benefit the region by solving conflicts between Somalia and Ethiopia over the ethnic Somali Ogaden region.
Somalia had already been declared a socialist state and had hosted large contingents of Soviet and Cuban military advisers and trainers.
At the time, Somalia was in an advanced stage of a military buildup to take the Ogaden region, regarded by the Somali government as a territory occupied by Ethiopia. Somali troops took over Ogaden and moved deep into Ethiopia.
The Soviet Union sided with Ethiopia. Galal said Castro sent thousands of troops to Ethiopia. By March 1978, Somali troops had suffered heavy defeats and were driven back. Members of the demoralized Somali military officers made a coup attempt in Mogadishu. Somalia has never recovered from the collapse which followed.
Castro said “he brought Somalia to its knees. … He was a bad man who hated Somalis,” Galal said.
Castro is credited with helping bring about the beginning of the end of apartheid. In Angola, Castro’s Cuba upped the ante. The Carnation Revolution in Portugal in April 1974 forced the country to pull out of its colonies, including Angola. A power struggle immediately broke out between Angola’s three independence movements.
Apartheid South Africa, which illegally occupied present-day Namibia, saw in Portugal’s departure the loss of a buffer zone with “black Africa” hostile to its racial segregation policies, and a new threat in rising left-leaning movements in Angola and Namibia, Kalinaki reported.
As war broke out in Angola, Cuba sent in troops to support Castro’s favorite party — the MPLA, Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola.
By the end of 1975 there were at least 36,000 Cuban troops in Angola supported by the Soviet military. On the other side of the contest stood Angola’s opposition parties FNLA and UNITA with support from Zaire, South Africa and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Cuba had already brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 and it now had the two powers in a face-off in southern Africa, Daily Nation reported.
The MPLA prevailed thanks to Cuba’s intervention, forcing South Africa’s withdrawal, Namibia’s independence, and the beginning of the end of apartheid.
Cuba paid a high price for its military intervention. At least 4,300 Cuban soldiers died in the African wars, half of them in Angola.
The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, a few years before apartheid ended. South Africa held its first democratic elections in 1994.
Castro held onto communism despite the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Castro was no angel, Kalinaki said. He ran Cuba with “a strong arm and with dodgy economic policies, but for many in Africa the Cuban leader … was a friend in need.”
Soon after the start of the Cuban revolution in 1953, Castro told a court: “You can condemn me but it doesn’t matter; history will acquit me.”
In Castro, African activists found a leader willing to share flaming rhetoric
as well as practical guidance to freedom at a time when Africans had few political allies.
Those liberation leaders became the founding fathers of modern Africa, and they never
forgot Cuba’s help, Quartz reported.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Castro was one of the first leaders he met. Mandela dismissed criticism of his friendship with Castro.
“We are now being advised about Cuba by people who have supported the apartheid
regime these last 40 years,” Mandela said on a visit to Havana in 1991. “No honorable man or woman could ever accept advice from people who never cared for us at the most difficult times.”
However, Castro has his critics in Africa.
“My grandfather was ripped out of his home by Castro-backed Ethiopian troops & slaughtered in front of my family. Please have some nuance,” Yasmin Yonis tweeted. “He did many great things, resisted American imperialism but also supported violence.”